An animal rights group submitted a petition with 40,000 signatures to the Eastern Virginia Medical School Board of Visitors on Tuesday demanding the school stop using baboons for experiments aimed at helping women avoid certain complications in pregnancy associated with estrogen deficiency and exposure to microplastics.
Lady Freethinker, a Los Angeles-based nonprofit, obtained documents through a Freedom of Information Act request that outline EVMS research conducted in summer 2021 involving pregnant baboons. The group called the methods used on the animals “cruel, ineffective, and costly.”
As part of the research, pregnant baboons were given varying combinations of estrogen and an estrogen inhibitor and their fetuses were delivered via cesarean section at different stages of pregnancy, according to documents provided to The Virginian-Pilot. The placenta and fetal tissue were then collected for study, according to the protocol objective for the experiment submitted by EVMS to the National Institutes of Health’s Institutional Animal Care and Use Committee.
A total of 156 baboons were requested for the experiment over three years, including mothers, fetuses and the breeding males. Death of the mother, the fetus or both were accepted outcomes of the study as described in the documents.
The documents show that one pregnant baboon, named Jemma, began acting “abnormally” and had a seizure due to low blood sugar on May 21, 2021 after being administered estrogen inhibitors. Jemma was found unresponsive in her cage on June 15, 2021 and two days later her fetus was removed via cesarean section to have its tissue studied.
“Not only is this tremendously cruel, but it’s also useless and unproductive,” reads a letter sent by Nina Jackel, president of Lady Freethinker, to EVMS President Alfred Abuhamad.
“Students at EVMS could be conducting research that will actually help humans, but instead, more time and money are wasted, and more animals are needlessly killed in useless experiments that don’t benefit anyone,” the letter continued.
There were no unexpected effects on the baboons and the school does not believe there was any wrongdoing by researchers in the course of the experiment, according to Vincent Rhodes, a spokesperson for EVMS. Rhodes said the experiment, entitled “Regulation of Fetal-Placental Development in the Primate,” was conducted in compliance with federal guidelines.
“Women who experience deficiency in making estrogen have children with a higher incidence of disease such as diabetes,” Rhodes wrote in an email. “Our intent is to learn what kind of deficiencies that occur in pregnancies that lead to health problems later in life. Our experiment is helping to determine this.”
He added that these experiments cannot be done in a computer simulation or with cells, and it can’t be done on humans. The protocol objective explains that using baboons are the most effective model for human pregnancy.
Emily Raap, a campaign manager for Lady Freethinker, said the research has not yet resulted in a clinical application for humans, “meaning mothers who need effective treatments have been waiting for decades without an end in sight.”
Two Lady Freethinker volunteers, both Hampton Roads residents, attended the Board of Visitors meeting on Tuesday to deliver a box full of signatures. The organization launched the signature drive in May and promoted it online and through social media. The volunteers calmly took up position behind the rows of chairs holding a large sign reading “shut down the baboon lab now!” and didn’t have a chance to deliver the box to Rector Bruce D. Waldholtz personally, as they planned, before the board went into closed session.
When asked whether 40,000 signatures opposing these types of experiments would impact EVMS’s decision making, Rhodes said only that the school does not “undertake these types of study lightly,” and voluntarily submits to Association for Assessment and Accreditation of Laboratory Animal Care International accreditation “to ensure we are meeting the highest standards and federal requirements.”
Gavin Stone, 757-712-4806 firstname.lastname@example.org